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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

In another person’s shoes…

I am a frequent visitor to Katong Shopping Centre because I am in the hunt for yet another maid. The first one didn’t last long…Then I read in an ST commentary today that only 42 per cent of maids placed by agents last more than a year with their employers. Those are Manpower ministry statistics from Feb 2011 to Feb last year. And I don’t feel that bad – except I wonder if “good job-matching’’ is one of the criteria for maid agencies which acquire the CaseTrust mark.

The media has been full of stuff about maid agents of the unscrupulous kind, as well as employers of the horrible kind. NGOs are weighing in on the way prospective maids are “put on display’’ in a demeaning way and the slave labour rates that they get – no money for several months because of loan payments that the employer had paid the bill for.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the plight of those who have to leave the country in search of better pay. I cringe when I see maids lined up behind glass walls and supposedly doing chores like ironing and coo-ing baby to sleep (they carry a doll).
What if I were put in their shoes? I think I would be rather too proud to do the same, unless I am in desperate straits – which I guess most of them must be.

Then I also hear some horror stories about maids and am reminded that I must install a CCTV in my mother’s home to monitor the maid’s movements. I was told of a maid who was caught “napping’’ everyday, lazing around the house before hurrying to do the housework before Sir and Mom get home. Not so bad, I thought. Then I hear about how she was caught thrashing the pet dog with a chair. And more mysteriously, how she took a loaf of bread from the kitchen and then put it back in its place untouched after several hours. Hauled by the employer to the maid agent, she steadfastly refused to say what she was doing with the loaf of bread in the meantime. Needless to say, she was “returned’’ to the maid agent to be unleashed, I suppose, as a transfer maid on another unsuspecting employer.

That loaf of bread bugged me and I am now wondering if I should extend surveillance coverage to bedrooms and bathrooms as well. I know I shouldn’t. Everyone deserves privacy. I put myself in their shoes. I wouldn’t want to live under 24-hour surveillance.

I read also today about how employers are keeping tabs on their workers especially those who have to go out in the field to do interviews or surveys. ST quoted employees who, OF COURSE, said they didn’t mind such surveillance. Bosses, OF COURSE, insist they are not spying but just want to improve efficiency. I guess it’s no different from spot checks being done, except in a more efficient way using technology. It crossed my mind that the G should invest in them because I recall how the Auditor-General had noted that most of its parking enforcement officers are never where they are supposed to be on their rounds. Good for motorists but you wonder about what they are up to on the taxpayers’ dime. Catching a movie?

Then I put myself in their shoes. Would I like to have my employer checking up on me all the time? Even remotely? Good for company productivity but what about my privacy? Does a worker’s life belong to the employer during working hours?

Lines are getting blurred because the nature of the jobs we do are changing. We’re no longer tied to a bench in an assembly line where a few minutes of stray thinking might lead to a finger getting sliced off. So many of us are “up and about’’ during company time, for work, sales and outside meetings. Some of our work requires creativity or “down time’’. It’s not manual labour or quantifiable. I guess companies have other ways of monitoring laggards, like setting targets for sales. So, don’t care what you do, so long as you meet targets – and commissions for whatever you sell beyond. Of course, for bosses, it would be more efficient to set targets extremely high and for workers, not to spoil market for the rest by meeting targets too easily.

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But when we keep applauding the use of technology in monitoring workers, I wonder if we’re missing another point – the extent of control companies can have over their workers. Can a company really install hidden cameras anywhere it wants, even the bathrooms to monitor pee-breaks? I suppose so since it is on its premises. What about tapping phones or monitoring email? Okay too because company property is being used? What if it made every worker out on the field carry an electronic monitoring device? Is that okay too? Sure, since GPS devices can be used in company transport to monitor deliveries and such.

I suppose such restrictions represent a contract or compact between employers and workers. I pay you, you do as I say. Except that most workers are probably not aware of any monitoring going on if technology is used. We’re probably not going to make a big fuss about it even if we do. Most of us are not “western’’ enough to insist on our right to privacy. Hey, we even welcome the instalment of CCTV cameras everywhere as a crime deterant. Privacy issues come second. And if anyone doesn’t like the surveillance, they can always walk out and walk into another company.

I am actually wondering if there are any lines drawn at all between the employer and the employed with regards to “proper’’ working conditions. You might say that this is a “rich’’ country question when there are other more pressing issues such as housing and paying foreign workers appropriately. You might also say that common sense will prevail – CCTV to monitor bathroom breaks? Is this something that a worker can complain about to MOM or any labour union representative?

Maybe, I am over-thinking the issue. I am only raising this because I am wondering about extending CCTV coverage to monitor a maid’s movements. Like any employer, I can come up with all the reasons to say that I am well within my rights to do so. But as a human being, I am not certain. That’s because I would mind, even though I am sure I would never do anything wrong, if I were in the other person’s shoes.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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